Tournament run means Hilltoppers are WK-who? no longer Print
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Tuesday, 25 March 2008 11:41
NCAAB Headline News


 BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (AP) - When Tyrone Brazelton went home to Chicago in the spring of 2006 to tell family and friends that two years of hard work at junior college had finally landed him a basketball scholarship at Western Kentucky, the reaction was less than overwhelming.
``Some of the older people in the community in Chicago, they know about the history and the tradition and heritage (of Western Kentucky),'' Brazelton said. ``But most of the younger people still ask me is it a Division II, so they don't know much about it. They will now.''
Brazelton and the Hilltoppers have seen to that.
Western Kentucky's run through the NCAA tournament - the 12th-seeded Hilltoppers (29-6) will play top-seeded UCLA (33-3) in the West Region semifinals on Thursday - has given the program that plays in a state whose loyalties are usually divided between national powers Kentucky and Louisville a hard-earned public relations boost.
Just don't call the Hilltoppers ``Cinderella,'' even if they know they'll be everybody's favorite underdog against the Bruins.
``Cinderella is a great phrase by outsiders looking in, but we really haven't spoke about being a Cinderella team,'' Brazelton said. ``We feel like we belong.''
As Brazelton has learned, Western Kentucky's basketball history extends far beyond senior Ty Rogers' 3-pointer at the buzzer in overtime that sank fifth-seeded Drake in the first round last Friday.
Western Kentucky's 20 NCAA tournament appearances are more than Gonzaga, Florida and Tennessee. The Hilltoppers made the Final Four in 1971, losing to Villanova in double-overtime in the semifinals. They made the regional semifinals in 1993, when coach Darrin Horn was a slick shooting guard, before falling to Florida State.
But that was before YouTube, text messaging and bracketology. When Horn and the Hilltoppers made it to the regional semifinals 15 years ago, he didn't have 172 text messages waiting for him as Rogers did after beating Drake.
And even though the Hilltoppers' winning percentage over the last seven years (.729) is better than Louisville's (.719) and almost identical to Kentucky's (.731), their inability to make the tournament on a consistent basis has rendered all the banners at E.A. Diddle Arena relics in the eyes of recruits.
``We did it so early in its evolution that we probably missed out on a lot of branding and a lot of awareness that happens now with the tournament,'' athletic director Wood Selig said. ``If we'd have been doing what we did 10-15 years ago now, it wouldn't be Gonzaga that people would be talking about, it would be WKU.''
The hours since Sunday's win over San Diego in the second round have been ones of push-pull for the Hilltoppers.
While they've tried to enjoy their newfound fame - Rogers said his parents have given him permission to go over his 1,500 text messaging limit this month so he can respond to all the well-wishers who have popped up in the last week - they're also trying to not let the moment overwhelm them.
It's not easy when hundreds of fans show up at the airport as they did Sunday night after the Hilltoppers beat San Diego in the second round, or radio shows are calling for interviews, or people keep e-mailing you video of the biggest shot of your life.
By Tuesday however, things had calmed down, at least a little. Horn gave his players Monday off so they could take a mental break and relax. On Tuesday it was back to work, as the Hilltoppers tried to treat the school's biggest game in 15 years like just another midseason Sun Belt Conference game, even if it's not.
``I think we're just going to try and stick to everything we've done all year,'' Rogers said. ``A lot of people didn't think we'd make it this far, so we're just going to try and go out and play as hard as we can. If we lose, we're done so I don't think there's that much pressure.''
But there are expectations, at least for the Hilltoppers.
``I think our name is definitely out there, but we're not satisfied,'' Brazelton said. ``It's nice to be in the Sweet 16, but we're just not satisfied with it.''
Neither is their coach, who has spent the last four years trying to mold his alma mater into the kind of program that has some staying power. Getting through the tournament's first weekend will only help when he hits the recruiting trail, but Horn knows the Hilltoppers need to be more than one-year wonders.
``I think mistakenly people think a great run in the tournament automatically means that your program has jumped six levels and I don't think that's necessarily the case,'' Horn said. ``I think what it does is it sets the tone for that and you try to build on it. You try to get back next year and you try to be good enough to advance again and do it on a consistent basis.''
Maybe then the Hilltoppers won't be WK-who? anymore.
 

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